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Minorities In Iraq's Kirkuk Alarmed By Kurdish Troop Presence

Leading Arab and Turkoman politicians in Iraq are voicing concern over the deployment of Kurdish Peshmerga forces near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reports.

The politicians warned on March 2 that the move will further fuel intercommunal tension in the disputed area.

Muhammad Khalil al-Jiburi, head of the Arab bloc on the Kirkuk provincial council, told RFE/RL that the Arabs in the multiethnic Kirkuk region were alarmed at the recent deployment of some 5,000 Peshmerga fighters around the city.

Jiburi said Peshmerga armored vehicles and tanks have taken up positions at the approaches to the city "in what amounts to an occupation."

He added that promises were given to pull the forces out within 48 hours, but there have been no signs of such a withdrawal.

Ali Mehdi, deputy chairman of the Land of the Turkoman Party and head of the Turkoman bloc on the Kirkuk provincial council, told RFE/RL that Turkomans had urged Kurdish leaders and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in his capacity as commander in chief of the armed forces to withdraw the Peshmerga forces immediately.

"We fear their presence will further inflame tensions between the various ethnic communities in Kirkuk," Mehdi said.

Peshmerga forces spokesman General Jabbar Yawir told RFE/RL that credible intelligence was received that terrorist groups and remnants of the former regime of Saddam Hussein were planning to carry out bomb attacks and target government buildings during the February 25 demonstration in Kirkuk.

He said that necessitated taking preemptive measures in the face of serious threats and the move to bring in the Peshmerga forces.

Yawir said the Peshmerga deployed were reinforcements to bolster Iraqi Army units already stationed in the area, and would withdraw as soon as the "threats have been eliminated."

A spokeswoman for the United Nation Assistance Mission in Iraq, Radhia Ashuri, told RFE/RL that the UN expected all parties to show the "utmost restraint and commitment" to the provisions in the joint security agreements between the respective ethnic groups.

Political analyst Ibrahim al-Sumaidaie says that Kurdish concerns that demonstrations at this sensitive time could turn violent are understandable, but do not justify the deployment of thousands of Peshmerga troops.

Sumaidaie says the failure to hold planned elections in the province that could have led to a power-sharing arrangement has contributed to the present tense situation.

At a press conference on March 1 on his return from a trip to Europe, Kurdistan region President Masud Barzani stressed that real security threats -- especially against the Kurds -- made the deployment of Peshmerga forces necessary.

He added that they were there to protect not only the majority Kurds, but also the large populations of Turkomans and Arabs in the city as well as other ethnic groups.

A census of Kirkuk's population was to be held in December but was cancelled due to a dispute over the status of the city, as it is claimed by the Kurdistan region and the central government.

Kirkuk is a city of some 900,000 people located 235 kilometers north of Baghdad. Kirkuk Province has some 13 percent of Iraq's proven oil reserves and is believed to have much more that is untapped.